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Career Advice

Essential networking tips for graduate students

How to connect with key people and build your professional network.

BY NANA LEE | APR 18 2016

You are a graduate student attending a major international conference in your discipline and are registered for a career development event. You are attending a local conference with professionals in and out of your discipline. How do you connect with key people and build your professional network?

Here are some suggested networking tips.

Research and assess
Research the guest professionals, their job descriptions and their current and past affiliations before you arrive at the conference. Most are on Google, PubMed, Linkedin, ResearchGate and even Twitter. Select those who really pique your interest, whether it’s their career, company or life story. Be strategic.

Prepare communications
Prepare a few questions pertaining to their work or career path that is relevant to your pursuits and goals. Write them down, even practise with another mentor, and bring them to the event. Prepare a professional business card. Yes, make a card that has your name, title of PhD candidate, affiliation, LinkedIn URL and contact information.

Be presentable
When attending the event, dress nicely. No need for designer clothes, but make yourself presentable, always. If you are working at a lab and usually dress in jeans and a t-shirt, then keep a change of clothes at school as some networking functions may be announced on short notice. Many functions expect “business attire.”

The encounter
At the event, listen carefully to their presentations and write down any questions that pertain to you. If relevant, ask the question during the Q&A portion. Then introduce yourself during one-on-one time. If you prefer to ask in person, approach the speaker after the discussion. Introduce yourself with a smile, a firm handshake and a business card. Refer to them with their official title such as Doctor, Professor, Ms, Mr. Do not address them by their first name unless they say it is OK. Ask them the question(s) you had in mind. Start with “I really enjoyed your presentation. May I ask you a couple of questions?”

Some sample questions are:

“How did you land your first job?”

“What was your biggest challenge in your career path and how did/do you address it?”

“Does your company promote independent research projects? And how do they work into the business model?”

“If I want to transition into (whatever your interest is), what would be the best way to do so?”

“What do you like best about your current position?”

“What advice would you give a student like me?”

Keep a dialogue going depending on the answer, so listen to what they are saying. Do not merely hear the words, but comprehend the communication. Some of the essential communication is not in words, but in body language and facial expressions. End after a few minutes as there might be a line of students behind you. Thank them and ask them if you could follow-up with an email to keep in touch.

Find your own mentor
What if the ideal profession that you want is not represented at any networking functions? What if you missed the speaker? How do you make connections then? You still need to research, assess and prepare communications. Research is key. Use social media such as LinkedIn or an alumni database to find people who are in your in career. The best method to contact people are those who are from your alumni. Reach out via email requesting an informational interview. Treat it like it is an actual interview with regards to professionalism and dress. Ask your well-researched questions, and bring your resume, just in case they request one. Proceed with the next steps of follow-up and maintaining the connection.

The follow-up
Within 24 hours, write to them via email, thank them and summarize the conversation you had naming the specific event where you met them. Always use their title and last name. Respect goes a long way. If they say yes, send them a personal email invitation, not a generic one, through Linkedin, again stating the exact place and conversation you had. They now have an electronic copy of who you are and you are linked in their system for many years to come. Be brief and to the point. Do not attach your CV or resumé unless asked.

Maintaining the relationship
If you are aiming for a particular career they might help you years from that event—if they remember the conversation through the Linkedin invite and email. Keep in touch if you felt there was a strong enough connection. How do you maintain this professional relationship? One idea is if you find an article or project which they might be interested in, forward it to them. You can help them too. Or, if you noticed an article about them or their company, send along a short congratulatory note.

Remember, networking is not about making new Facebook friends. It is about connecting with professionals and building a trusting relationship for many years to come.

Thank you to Reinhart Reithmeier for his help in editing this article.

Dr. Lee is lecturer and director for graduate professional development in the departments of biochemistry and immunology, University of Toronto.

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